Education Reform: Warnings Confirmed, But Lessons Learned?

Soon after I began my career as an educator in 1984, I became a serious cyclist. An unexpected hobby sprang from that newfound activity—being my own bicycle mechanic. In fact, over the past three-plus decades, I have built up dozens of road bicycles from the parts for myself and my friends.

In the last 1990s, I bought my first titanium road frameset made by Litespeed. Not long after I began riding it, I noticed an irritating creaking sound and soon learned that the different metals involved in the various parts often created such problems, notably mating aluminum bottom bracket cups with the threaded titanium bottom bracket.

Several times, I rebuilt that bottom bracket fitting, cleaning, changing greases, and even using thread tape. I worked on the bicycle while mounted on my indoor trainer, and each time, when I tested the bicycle there, the noise was gone.

However, once on the open road, the same creaking returned.

Frustrated, I resigned myself to taking the bicycle to a shop mechanic. Like I did, he rebuilt the bottom bracket, multiple time, but each time he went out to test the bicycle, the creaking noise persisted.

After spending an inordinate amount of time fruitlessly working on the bottom bracket, the mechanic called me to report that he eventually discovered the noise was coming from the quick releases on the wheels. In fact, he also shared in exasperation that the mating of aluminum quick releases to titanium dropouts was a common noise problem.

The moral of this story? The mechanic and I were so focusing on a solution that we failed to properly evaluate the problem in the beginning. For the professional mechanic, this was particularly disturbing because he obsession with one solution clouded his ability to properly diagnose the situation.

For me, there is an added lesson: My process also failed because the bicycle was mounted on my trainer, which clamped the quick releases and created a false environment for testing the problem and the solution.

Overlapping my career as an educator and avocation as a cyclist have been nearly four decades of education reform in the U.S.

Recently, an interesting phenomenon has occurred, well reflected in this commentary from Education Week, Education Reform as We Know It Is Over. What Have We Learned?, that proclaims:

The education reform movement as we have known it is over. Top-down federal and state reforms along with big-city reforms have stalled. The political winds for education change have shifted dramatically. Something has ended, and we must learn the lessons of what the movement got right—and wrong.

Contemporary education reform in the U.S. has followed a pattern typified by those driving the reform wearing blinders and ear plugs. Around the early 1980s, with the publication of A Nation at Risk, the accountability era began, grounded in standards, high-stakes testing, and a laser focus on holding students and their schools accountable.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a public school English teacher, that accountability movement marched forward, driven mostly by state political initiatives that seemed more committed to the next-generation standards and tests than to any sort of goals (which changed perpetually also).

Despite the disconnect between the promises and outcomes of accountability-based education reform, there were huge political benefits to accountability, best represented by George W. Bush translating the “Texas miracle” (which was thoroughly debunked as no “miracle”) during his tenure as governor of Texas into No Child Left behind as a signature feature of his two-term presidency.

Education reform shifted from a state initiative to a federal one with NCLB—but the outcomes remained quite underwhelming when compared to the promises associated with ever-new standards and tests as well as market-based solutions such as school choice, charter schools, and teacher evaluations linked to testing.

The presidency of Barack Obama may have best captured the failure that is education reform committed to accountability since Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan embraced and expanded the policies and ideologies begun under Bush—Common Core as the next-generation standards and concurrent next-generation testing, teacher evaluations linked to those tests and the Brave New World of value-added methods to identify the best teachers and remove the worst, and the rampant expansion of charter schools (although research repeatedly shows that type of schools—private, public, or charter—is not correlated with outcomes).

Throughout these four decades, political leaders and the media have pounded the same drum none the less—schools are failing in the U.S., teachers and administrators practice the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and ratcheting up accountability with better standards and more testing will create schools that are “game changers,” proving finally that “ZIP codes are not destiny” in the U.S.

Education reform in this accountability era became mostly hollow sloganism—”no excuses” and “zero tolerance” as a couple more examples.

Yet, all along the way, educational scholars/researchers and classroom teachers firmly and consistently refuted nearly all of the claims of crisis as well as warned political solutions would not bear fruit.

And we were right.

In 2019, the crisis rhetoric of the Reagan era is no different than the complaints about U.S. public schools today.

Four decades of in-school only reform focusing on accountability have accomplished very little except to insure that children are left behind and to drive away legions of professional educators who can simply no longer labor under false narratives and impossible teaching and learning conditions.

The history of public education combined with the current accountability era of schooling in the U.S. has offered, in fact, some sobering realities about universal public education in the service of democracy.

Those sobering realities are simply so harsh against the myths that many in the U.S. embrace that we refuse to start our education reform by carefully identifying the problems and the causes of those problems—much as the bicycle mechanic and I wasted our time and energy on my bicycle creaking, much as I worked in a false environment to try find a solution.

Here’s one slogan you won’t hear too often: Public education has not failed its promise to U.S. democracy; we have failed public education.

And here’s another slogan you won’t hear, maybe at all: Public schools do not change society; public schools reflect and perpetuate all aspects of the communities and societies they serve.

Tax-funded community schools reflect in almost every way the challenges, flaws, and advantages found the communities they serve. Schools, regardless of the idealistic rhetoric, do not change their communities, or the children who walk their halls.

For just one example, my foundations in education students tutor in a nearby high-poverty majority-minority middle school. As we debriefed today on the last day of class, several students noted that they felt frustrated in the classes they were assigned because those students have had a revolving door of substitute teachers and spend many days without lesson plans or a clear focus on what they are doing.

I noted that high-poverty students often experience a great deal of transience and instability in their lives outside of schools, and were then having the same sort of unstable experiences at school.

That is not a game changer—but a game perpetuator.

In my 35th year as an educator, with over twenty-five as a scholar/researcher, I am deeply skeptical that anyone with the power to reform education or to reform the education reform movement has in fact learn the lessons I lay out above, or the ones addressed by Van Schoales in EdWeek.

The accountability paradigm was destined to fail because the problems with our schools had little to do with a lack of accountability. But this current era of reform has also done immeasurable harm to students, teachers, and public education.

Not only must we finally admit that education problems are a subset of social inequity, but also we must find ways to address that unnecessary harm done during decades of misguided reform—including billions of tax dollars wasted.

Those of us ignored during these times had the problems identified all along—gross inequities grounded in systemic poverty, racism, and sexism.

The education reform needed, then, is a herculean task that involves policies addressing social inequities along with educational inequities, and frankly, I doubt we have the political courage in the U.S. to acknowledge this or to do anything substantive about it.

I envision education reform 2.0 with blinders and ear plugs still firmly in place—and an annoying creaking providing the soundtrack.


See Also

An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform

Thomas, P. L., Porfilio, B.J., Gorlewski, J., & Carr, P.R. (eds.). (2014). Social context reform: A pedagogy of equity and opportunity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lost in Translation: English Learners, One Study, and the Dangers of Translating Research into Practice

Advertisements

The Academy: Razing the Old to Raise the New

Since I feel skepticism on the verge of antagonism toward tradition, I have struggled with the responses to the fire consuming Notre-Dame.

I certainly find the lost unfortunate, but I wonder how the opulence of the structure and the tremendous social inequity that spawned it remain mostly unacknowledged as the vast majority of people see this as a tragedy and hundreds of millions of dollars have already been donated to rebuild the cathedral.

Grand tragedy moves us, I realize, while gradual and persistent suffering seems to numb us; those hundreds of millions could better serve the destitute and hungry, human beings and not mere material monuments.

Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, many humans remain too often disturbingly un-self-aware: “‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!'”

But there is more to consider since this grand fire has occurred in the context of three church fires in Louisiana, arson rooted in racist hatred. The attention and responses are of much different scales because the contexts of each are of much different scales driven by tremendous historical inequities that linger, especially in the U.S.

I am drawn to my conflicted feelings about Notre-Dame as I consider the online responses to Rebecca A. Reid and Todd A. Curry’s The White Man Template and Academic Bias. Reid and Curry build on some of my work:

Higher education’s white male template, as P. L. Thomas, professor of education at Furman University, calls it, insidiously produces barriers for scholars throughout their entire careers, disproportionately affecting women and people of color. This template dictates certain research agendas, epistemologies, and methods as legitimate while discarding or marginalizing those that do not fit neatly within this framework. In essence, Thomas says, it “frames a white male subjectivity as the norm (thus ‘objective’), rendering racialized (nonwhite) and genderized (nonmale) subjectivity as the ‘other,’ as lacking credibility.”

And their central argument concludes: “Scholars who focus on critical theory, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and identities, qualitative methods and the like are marginalized because their work is supposedly not ‘objective’ science. Rather, it is political advocacy masquerading as scholarship — attractive only to specialized audiences and self-serving.”

This is ultimately a challenge to the Old Academy [1] and a call for the New Academy, suggesting, I think, that the only way to raise the New Academy is in the ashes of razing the Old Academy—something metaphorical against the very real burning of Notre-Dame.

The comments, as well, are parallel reactions to the hundreds of millions of dollars pouring in the from the cultural elite to rebuild Notre-Dame; many of those responses are vigorous and shallow defenses of the Old Academy, masked as arguments for rigor and high scientific ideals.

One of my responses prompted more ire:

Many of the comments prove the points posed by Reid and Curry even as the anonymous posters believing they are disputing them. This is the exact dynamic this article addresses. A total lack of self-awareness by the white/male elites who want to pretend they are the ones being objective and they are the ones meeting high standards. From educated people, these responses are sadly embarrassing.

I do in fact find these comments embarrassing in the same way Ozymandias’s words echo inside the hollowness of his defunct glory:

“…Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Academics posting on Inside Higher Ed should know better, but one thing I have learned over the past 17 years is that the so-called Ivory Tower is just as petty and flawed as the general population; we are just people after all—although one would hope many years of learning could spark a soul in a few more people.

Some of the comments make errors in logic and argument that many of us who teach first-year writing wouldn’t allow: misrepresenting Reid and Curry in order to attack the misrepresentation among the worst.

So I have tried to offer a couple clarifying comments of my own:

…The article above calls for both a critical reconsideration of the imbalance of power and authority allowed for so-called objective research and a more equitable understanding and greater space for so-called subjective research BECAUSE the objective is in fact not any less subjective than the so-called subjective; the imbalances of power in the academy are gendered and racial and the current dynamic of what research counts is both a result of those imbalances and a cause of perpetuating them. The rebukes posted here are often myopic, self-serving, and petty, mostly very shallow defenses of the current power imbalance under a thin veneer of defending rigor and scientific standards.

And:

For example, claims of objectivity and being scientific created and perpetuates scientific racism; the introduction of critical race theory, then, provides the platform for unmasking scientific racism and thus racism. This is an argument for allowing a larger space of what counts so that all types of research have greater fidelity and validity. See The Lingering, and Powerful, Legacy of “Scientific Racism” in America.

I function in two contexts that represent the conflict exposed in Reid and Curry’s article. I am the embodiment of the “white male template” and a critical scholar/activist.

As a result, I recognize that I both worked incredibly hard to achieve my academic success, my degrees and ultimately my tenured position as a full professor along with my publishing record, and benefitted from even greater privilege along all of those paths to accomplishment. As well, left mostly invisible, many of my accomplishments necessarily mean that I inhabited spaces denied to people being marginalized—women, people of color among many others.

I didn’t ask for anyone to be denied or erased, but I mostly failed to recognize those denials and erasures in my zeal for personal accomplishment. And I can attest that very few people have the moral fortitude to tumble the structures that benefit them—myself included.

Winners always think the rules of the game are fair and believe they earned their trophies by being better than the vanquished while never even considering those not allowed in the contest.

There is a great irony in the resistance to the New Academy, the clinging to the Old Academy like Emily sleeping each night with the corpse of a murdered lover who betrayed her: The New Academy will be far more demanding because of the influx of diversity and the expansion of what counts as credible research along with whose voice counts.

The Old Academy and lazy narrow conceptions of objective and scientific are ultimately simplistic and inadequate for the human experience and the pursuit of knowledge.

The Old Academy is primarily valuable to those already there; it is a security blanket of confirmation bias for the privileged who think they hit a triple when they were in fact born on third base.

Change is frightening for those made comfortable by the status quo. What Reid and Curry are calling for, the New Academy, deserves not the resistance of the white male template but the wonder and excitement of Miranda:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!


[1] The Old Academy, of course, is the current academy:

 

profs-gender

 

South Carolina Education Reform: Déjà vu all over again

Imagine for a moment that in the 1970s when Philip John Landrigan, an epidemiologist and pediatrician, conducted research on the negative consequences of lead in paint, political leaders chose to ignore the source of the problem, lead in paint, and had initiated policies aimed at children instead.

Now imagine that children continued to suffer from lead paint poisoning every decade since that decision, and every few years, political leaders offered passionate rhetoric confronting the tragedy of lead poisoning in children, followed by yet new policies once again aimed at children, while ignoring entirely the presence of lead in paint.

If this sounds ridiculous, please consider that beginning in the early 1980s, this exact scenario is how South Carolina political leaders have handled public education.

I have a unique perspective on SC education since I have taught here over four decades since 1983, 18 years as a public high school English teacher and coach followed by an on-going 17 years in higher education as a teacher educator and first-year writing professor. I also bring to this conversation a doctoral program grounded significantly in the history of public education in the U.S. as I wrote an educational biography of Lou LaBrant, who taught from 1906 until 1971.

Over my career in education, I have felt a great deal of compassion for LaBrant as she lamented in her memoir having lived and worked through three back-to-basics movements. As I have, she found herself exasperated by political education reform that proved to be déjà vu all over again.

A few years ago, I advocated strongly against yet more misguided education reform in SC—the Read to Succeed Act which has proven to be as flawed as I predicted since it, as my hypothetical scenario above highlights, failed to identify the evidence-based problems with literacy and reading in SC and then promoted new policy and solutions that not only do not address the problems, but create new and even worse problems.

Read to Succeed represents how SC education policy and reform is almost entirely partisan politics, but it also foreshadowed this newest round of wholesale education reform facing the state now.

Since the early 1980s, political leaders in SC have beaten a steady drum that our public schools are failing, resulting in that the only consistency in our schools has been the same solutions repackaged over and over again.

State standards, state high-stakes testing, school choice proposals, and charter schools—these templates for policies have been reframed over and over, and all we have to show for that today is the same political complaints—failing schools—and decades of research that all of these approaches have failed.

Instead of yet another misguided series of education reform policies beneath misleading political rhetoric, SC could take a different path, one that shifts not only policies and practices but ideologies.

First, again returning to the opening hypothetical response to lead paint, SC must start with clearly identifying what problems exist in our schools and then carefully distinguish between which of those problems are a reflection of social forces and which are the consequences of actual school and teaching practices.

For example, SC’s problems with literacy are a reflection of generational inequities such as poverty and racism magnified by decades of misguided commitments to ever-different standards, tests, and reading programs.

Literacy in our state is a harbinger of how children suffer when parents have low-paying work, face transient lives, and are shut out of robust healthcare and adequate insurance.

Literacy also reflects in our state that once all children enter schools, they receive distinctly different access to education—poor, black, and brown children along with English language learners and students with special needs are significantly cheated by schooling while white and affluent students have access to low class sizes, advanced courses, and the most experienced certified teachers.

Next, SC must recognize that policies and practices based on accountability and market forces have failed our students and our schools. Instead, we need educational policy grounded in equity.

For example, all children should have access to experienced and certified teachers, low class sizes, and challenging classes. Historically and currently, those assurances are for privileged children only.

Further, SC must acknowledge that teaching conditions are learning conditions. Teacher pay, teacher professionalism, teacher autonomy, facilities and materials funding and quality, student/teacher ratios—all of these are policies that indirectly and directly impact whether or not teaching and learning can thrive in our schools. Yet, SC politicians remain determined not to make these choices while remaining committed to expensive and ineffective policies such as standards, testing, and choice models such as charter schools.

As a broad guide, then, SC must set aside political rhetoric and partisan commitments in order to turn instead to a wealth of educational research on both the need for social policy addressing inequity and reforming schools in ways that serve both teachers’ ability to teach and students’ equitable access to learning.

The problem in SC schools has never been about the presence or quality of our standards or what tests students have to navigate in order to survive schooling.

The lead in the paint of our state includes poverty, racism, and a whole host of disadvantages such as the scarcity of high-quality and stable work, healthcare, and affordable housing.

The lead in the paint of our schools is that teaching and learning conditions are hostile to students having equitable access to learning.

SC political leaders refuse none the less to address those problems because they are too enamored with partisan politics as usual in a state tragically embracing the worst aspects of conservative ideology; once again as those myopic political leaders claim bold education reform, it’s déjà vu all over again.


See Also

UPDATED: Beware the “Miracle” School Claim: “Why not tell the whole story?”

Conservative Politics Fails Public Education Redux

Conservative Talking Points Wrong for SC Education

Much Ado about Politics (Not Reading)

The Big Lie about the “Science of Reading” (Updated)

While too often inordinately dangerous* for the most vulnerable, social media can be a powerful window into how we think about and judge education. Recently, the reading wars have been once again invigorated; this time driven often by parents and advocates for students with special needs and accompanied by a very familiar refrain, the “science of reading.”

One problem with public debate about education is that political and public voices often lack experience and expertise in education as well as any sort of historical context.

First, those who have studied the history of education, and specifically the ever-recurring reading wars, know that there has never been a decade in the last 100+ years absent political and public distress about a reading crisis.

However, one doesn’t need a very long memory to recognize that if we currently are (finally?) having a reading crisis, it comes in the wake of almost two decades (nested in a larger four decades of accountability birthed under Ronald Reagan) dedicated to scientifically-based education policy, specifically reading policy driven by the National Reading Panel (NRP).

The NRP was touted as (finally?) a clearing house of high-quality evidence on teaching children to read (although it proved itself to be partisan hokum).

This is all quite fascinating in the context of the current media blitz about the reading crisis and a need (yes, once again) to focus on the science of reading. Concurrent with that media fail is a move within the academia to shift reading away from literacy experts and into the purview of special needs, treating all reading instruction as something like remediation or a learning disability.

For example, I noticed a very odd dynamic on social media: a post on a community Facebook page for advocates of education that was linked to a dyslexia Facebook page promoting this from Mississippi:

MS gains propaganda

The message included dramatic arguments: Mississippi has somehow found the science of reading and is excelling in ways South Carolina refuses to do.

Knowing standardized test scores, and NAEP specifically, well, I was immediately skeptical of these claims.

Here is the short version: In 2017 NAEP data, MS is slightly ahead of SC in 4th-grade reading (both states remain near the bottom and below the national average), but SC is slightly ahead of MS in 8th-grade reading (again, both near the bottom and below the national average):

4th reading 2017

8th reading 2017

While Mississippi is promoting gains (accurately), the data remain clear that high-poverty states tend to score low on standardized testing while more affluent states tend to score higher.

What is extremely important to note is that some traditionally low scoring states have found methods (test-prep, reading programs focused on raising test scores, and grade retention) that increase test scores short term (making for political propaganda), but those gains have proven to be a mirage, disappearing in the span between 3rd/4th- grade tests to 8th-grade tests and then high school (see, for example, research on Florida).

So we sit here with some real problems and questions: Is there a reading crisis in the U.S. and my home state of SC? And if so, is that crisis somehow the result of refusing to implement the science of reading?

Well, first, I need to note that the “science of reading” is code for intensive phonics and is intended as an antidote to the current evil in reading, balanced literacy.

Now, consider this: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a similar event happened when people started shouting about the reading crisis in California spawned by whole language (now, people claim balanced literacy and whole language are the same thing, and thus, equally evil).

Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, unmasked that round of the reading wars, noting that although CA claimed whole language as the official reading approach of the state, teachers were almost never practicing whole language.

Further, the reading score plummet of those years did correlate with whole language being the official policy, but the causes of those lower scores were a large influx of non-native speakers of English and significant decreases in educational funding (larger classes specifically negatively impacting achievement).

This isn’t particularly simple or compelling but let’s detail why this recent round of the reading wars is way off base:

  • Standardized tests of reading are only proxies of reading, typically they reduce reading to a series of discrete skills that test designers claim add up to reading. This is at least inadequate, if not misleading. No standardized test measures eagerness and joy for reading, as well; nearly none address critical literacy.
  • Making raising reading test scores your primary or exclusive goal is actually cheating all students. Period. And this is what many states are doing, including MS.
  • Achieving test score gains when you are low scoring is much easier that making gains when you are high achieving.
  • Adopting, implementing, and staying focused on any reading program—these are also very common practices, and completely flawed approaches to literacy. Access to books in the home and choice reading remain the strongest predictors of increased reading and reading achievement.
  • Ultimately, if we insist on using reading test scores to judge the quality of teaching reading in any state or the country, we must acknowledge that how students are being taught is both almost impossible to identify and completely impossible to characterize as one clear practice (teachers are very likely to shut their doors and do as they please, regardless of policies).
  • And most important is the fact that standardized test scores of reading are a reflection of a large number of factors, with teaching practices only one (probably small) causal factor.

To that last point, consider this matrix of 2017 NAEP reading scores (4th/8th) along with the poverty in each state, the African American population percentage, and the Hispanic/Latinx population percentage. These data portray a much more complex picture of the reading problem, and resist the distraction that how students are being taught reading is cheating students, who could be saved by the “science of reading” (which, by the way, is balanced literacy—o, irony):

[Click links above each chart for expanded charts with grade retention legislation identified.]

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 1

NAEP reading 2017 1

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 2

NAEP reading 2017 2

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 3

NAEP reading 2017 3

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 4

NAEP reading 2017 4

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 5

NAEP reading 2017 5

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 6

NAEP reading 2017 6

Poverty NAEP 4 8 2017 grade retention 7

NAEP reading 2017 7

The “science of reading” mantra is a Big Lie, but it is also a huge and costly distraction from some real problems.

Relatively affluent states still tend to score above average or average on reading tests; relatively poor states tend to score below average on reading tests.

Some states that historically scored low, under the weight of poverty and the consequences of conservative political ideology that refuses to address that poverty, have begun to implement harmful policies to raise test scores (see the magenta highlighting) in the short-term for political points.

It is 2019. There is no reading crisis in the way the “science of reading” advocates are claiming.

It is 2019. Balanced literacy is the science of reading, but it is not the most common way teachers are teaching reading because schools are almost exclusively trying to raise scores, not students who are eager, joyful, and critical readers.

It is 2019. Political and public efforts to do anything—often the wrong thing—so no one addresses poverty remain the American Way.

It is 2019. It is still mostly about poverty when people insist it is about reading and reading policy.


* This opening has been revised because I made a careless error by making an analogy using the “Wild West,” seeking an engaging opening but making a culturally insensitive comparison instead. I regret this use of phrasing, but also appreciate being kindly informed of my carelessness in private. I try to listen to such concerns, and kindness, and am learning every day to be a better person, and writer.


Third-Grade Reading Legislation

3rd grade retention legislation

Charter Schools Fail SC: A Reader

Nationally, momentum has been building toward political and public recognition that the education reform movement begun in the early 1980s has fallen well short of promises. This failure was identified throughout the accountability era by educators and scholars, of course, but political leaders and the public chose to ignore those with experience and expertise in their own field.

The problem with the reform movement included a refusal to acknowledge the primary problems in our public schools—overwhelming poverty and inequity of opportunity along social class and racial lines—and ideological commitments to the accountability paradigm (standards and high-stakes testing as well as focusing on so-called teacher quality) despite that solution in no way matching those ignored problems.

A subset of that movement has been the rise of charter schools, which served to bridge a political divide between school choice advocates on the right and public school advocates on the left. Charter schools are touted as public schools, but they also are driven by many elements (the worse kinds) of market forces.

Even with charter school popularity, they constitute a very small percentage of schooling in the U.S. (data from Education Week):

  • Traditional public schools: 91,422 (2015-16, Source)
  • Public charter schools: 6,855 (2015-16, Source)
  • Private schools: 34,576 (2015-16, Source)

And thus: “According to data from three years earlier2.8 million public school students, or 5.7 percent, are in charter schools.”

Here is what we know about charter schools, then, messages repeated by educators and scholars for many years. Charter schools do not outperform public schools because they are charter schools (just as private schools do no outperform public schools).

When charter schools claim to outperform public schools, the reasons often lie in serving different populations (notably concerning ELL and special needs students), having the ability to select or counsel out students, and other policies and practices that public schools often cannot or do not implement (longer school days and years, for example).

Charter schools, like all school choice, contribute heavily to segregation—one of the serious problems lingering in public schools today.

Recent reporting at the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) may suggest the tide is also turning against charter school advocacy trumping evidence:

This media recognition matches messages I have been sending for many years, including damning analysis that charter schools in SC mostly perform the same or worse than comparable public schools:

And my analysis of two years of data on SC charter schools has shown:

  • Using 2011 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical.
  • Using 2013 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 2/52 ABOVE Typical, 20/52 Typical, 22/52 BELOW Typical.

Here, then, is a reader to further reinforce how charter schools fail SC, particularly in terms of re-segregating a system long-plagued by race and class inequity:


See Also

Challenging the market logic of school choice: A spatial analysis of charter school expansion in Chicago, Stephanie Farmer, Chris D. Poulos, and Ashley Baber

ABSTRACT

Corporate education reformers take for granted that market competition in the public schools system will improve education conditions. We conducted a spatial analysis of Chicago Public Schools, examining the spatial features of charter school expansion in relation to under-18 population decline, school utilization, and school closure locations. Our findings indicate that 69% of new charter schools were opened in areas with significantly declining under-18 population and approximately 80% of charter schools were opened within walking distance of closed school locations. Our findings show, contrary to corporate education reform logic, that a competitive charter school market created spatial and financial inefficiencies resulting in school closures and systemwide budgetary cuts primarily impacting distressed neighborhoods. We explain the overproduction of charter schools through the lens of the firm-like behavior of charter school operators driven by a self-interested growth mandate that can undermine the stability of the public schools system as a whole.

When Ideology Trumps Evidence, Expertise

How do humans know the world? That answer is very complex, of course, but each of us begins understanding the world through our senses.

At the most basic level, we can explain “knowing the world” as an on-going interaction between our genetics and the experiences we gather from that world through our senses. As we mature, particularly as our brain develops, and thus our ability to use cognition (thinking), we are more able to think through our sensory perceptions (slow down and even change our responses) than merely react.

This dynamic is incredibly important as we try to understand the distinction between correlation and cause. Humans, however, are hostages to ancient evolutionary impulses that often contributed to our survival; in other words, in the earliest years of human existence, making abrupt causal assumptions (which may have often been mere correlation) were preferable to making more deliberate decisions because of the primary need simply to survive.

Contemporary humans not currently in dire environments or under the stress of poverty, oppression, or disease (for example) have the privilege of cognitive deliberation: Many of us in relatively stable and safe lives can (and should) be more careful about drawing causal or correlational conclusions, and thus, we should be far more deliberate about “knowing the world” based on more than our personal experiences and grounded in robust evidence while also resisting the allure of knowing the world through mere ideology.

In many of my courses, I ask students to consider all that by one simple thought experiment grounded in our sense of smell, “closely linked with memory.” I ask students to recall a first visit to a friend’s home and having the realization that other people’s houses smell different.

girl holding white flower covered with flower

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Many, if not most, students begin to nod and even smile, recalling the experience. I then ask them to interrogate how they reacted to the house smelling different, and we conclude that our urge is to think of the different smell as bad or wrong.

Here, I think, is a powerful example of how human experience, cognition, and ideology conspire to derail human potential.

Recently on Twitter, I joined a discussion about charter schools, specifically contentious debates about the charter chain KIPP:

Stepping back from the topic of charter schools itself and looking broadly at the nature of the advocacy for charter schools is a microcosm of the problem I noted above. Charter schools (6855) are a very small fraction of public schools (91, 422) in the U.S., and only 5.7% of students attend charter schools (see data here).

At one level, then, the public and political debate and discourse about charter schools are both disproportionate and distorted by advocacy driven by ideology and not evidence and expertise.

That dynamic is driven by a belief that charter and private schools are outperforming public schools, which have suffered under a very long history of being characterized as failing. Yet, research has shown time and again that type of schooling has no real causal relationship with so-called school quality; in short, charter, private, and public schools all have about the same outcomes when conditions of that schooling are constant.

When charter schools boast of superior outcomes, the truth lies in many factors—such as underserving significant populations of students or the ability to choose or “counsel out” students—that make a comparison with public schools misleading at best and false at worst.

The charter school phenomenon represents the problem with ideology driving public policy at the expense of evidence and expertise.

Now, as I noted, charter schools and students attending charter schools are relatively small populations, and thus in the grand scheme of funding and public policy, my discussion here may seem as disproportionate as the debate itself.

My concern is that the charter school dynamic is just one aspect of a much more insidious problem with the U.S. persisting as a belief culture, particularly in terms of the political and public faith in equity, equal opportunity, and our having reached some sort of post-racial (and post-racist) society.

If we dig deeper in the charter school debate and the persistent antagonism toward public schools, we see a powerful racial element. U.S. public schools now serve a majority-minority population of students (white students constitute 48.9%), and what we can say about charter, private, and public schools is that all types of schooling have witnessed an increase in segregation.

Beliefs about school quality must not be disentangled from beliefs about race.

Let’s place the charter school debate in how the public perceives racial equity. Blacks and whites grossly mischaracterize both historical racial inequity and current racial inequity.

As an interview with Michael Kraus details:

For instance, one question in the study asked: “For every $100 earned by an average white family, how much do you think was earned by an average black family in 2013?” The average respondent guessed $85.59, meaning they thought black families make $14.41 less than average white families. The real answer, based on the Current Population Survey, was $57.30, a gap of $42.70. Study participants were off by almost 30 points.

The gap between estimate and reality was largest for a question about household wealth. Participants guessed that the difference between white and black households would be about $100 to $85, when in reality it’s $100 to $5. In other words, study participants were off by almost 80 points. Participants were also overly optimistic about differences in wages and health coverage.

If we allow public policy to be driven by belief, we find no political motivation for that policy addressing the realities of racial inequity:

Michael Kraus argues that these misperceptions fit conveniently with the idea of the American dream—that every individual, regardless of background, can succeed with talent and hard work. “Those beliefs can lead us astray, can lead us to not see the world for what it is. There’s a lot of work that still needs doing if our economic reality is going to match up with our narratives of opportunity.”

The irony is that believing the American Dream already exists prevents the U.S. from attaining the American Dream of racial equity.

As an educator for almost four decades now, I must share a final thought on evidence. Despite my best efforts—for example when we try to examine evolution and how the U.S. compares with international acceptance of evolution—students remain themselves resistant to setting aside their beliefs and then embracing a more accurate understanding of the world based on evidence and expertise.

From corporal punishment, to school safety, and to grade retention, when I engage students or the public, most people remain committed to their beliefs and refuse to engage with evidence while often discounting expertise.

So the really sobering reality about how we know the world is that too many of us are failing the evolutionary curve toward knowing the world based on evidence and expertise instead of imposing our ideologies onto that world.

The consequences of this are dire, especially to the most vulnerable among us.


See Related

Unlearning the Lessons of Hillbilly Elegy, Stanley Greenberg

On Pedagogy and Expertise: Enduring False Dichotomies in Education

English educator Lou LaBrant taught in a wide variety of contexts for 65 years while also producing a significant body of scholarship from the 1920s into the late 1980s. Her career was nearly as prodigious as her attitude.

Writing in 1931, for example, LaBrant announces: “The cause for my wrath is not new or single” (p. 245). Her “wrath” was pointedly aimed at the rise of the project method in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Projects, LaBrant noticed, began to dwarf, and even replace, time students spent on authentic literacy—students reading and writing by choice, the practices LaBrant advocated for over decades as “scientific.”

As I write this 9 decades later, project based learning (PBL) is, once again, all the rage. And from my perspective, similar to LaBrant’s, I watch as teachers and students are put in impossible teaching/learning situations all in the service of “doing PBL.”

While PBL flourishes in my home state of South Carolina, I also have witnessed throughout the past four decades a mind-numbing parade of new standards, new high-stakes tests, and new regulations and processes for certifying and evaluating teachers.

Formal teacher education and K-12 education suffer from the same problem LaBrant wrestled with her entire career—the misapplication of scientific principles in the pursuit of codifying “good teaching” and “student achievement.”

The current teacher evaluation rubric (with over 400 indicators) SC teacher educators and evaluators must navigate is disturbing proof that we have chosen The Hulk (the monster misguided science produces) over Bruce Banner (the measured scientist) in our unbridled lust to control how teachers teach and how students learn.

The Incredible Hulk showed the transformation of scientist Bruce Banner into the green monster.
The Incredible Hulk 1 (vol. 1) offers a powerful contrast between the scientist and the potential monster science can produce.

LaBrant resonates with me because I have existed in the field of education for almost 40 years now in a constant state of “wrath” because of one of the most disturbing dichotomies that define the field—the disconnect between pedagogy and expertise.

This disconnect, or false tension, is best reflected in the on-going discussions about teaching writing. To teach writing well, many of us argue, teachers must have some authentic experience and expertise in writing themselves; without that expertise, all the pedagogy one can attain is ultimately inadequate.

Expertise grounds teaching, I think, in authentic goals, also essential for any pedagogy or program to be effective.

For example, best practices in writing instruction, a well-planned and implemented workshop model, is for naught if teachers are mandating students produce five-paragraph essays that are driven by a prompt and rubric mandated by the teacher.

Now here is the problem: A seasoned and active professional writer would fair little better if tossed into a teaching situation with no experience or expertise in evidence-based pedagogy.

This false dichotomy is well represented by the contrast between K-12 teaching and higher education. K-12 is dominated by the belief that anyone can teach anything if equipped with pedagogy, programs, and accountability (see The Hulk rubric now governing teaching in SC I have confronted in the link above); higher education embraces a laissez-faire norm that anyone can teach when equipped with expertise.

My second career as a teacher educator has proven to me what I long suspected as a high school English teacher for 18 years: There are profound limits to our urge for discovering and prescribing “good teaching” and “student achievement.”

I have railed against this often, but I call this our technocratic urge, a perverse and dangerous form of “scientific” (again, The Hulk, not Bruce Banner).

During the early decades of LaBrant’s career, there was a relatively balanced tension among educational philosophies and theories that included at least two factions using the term “scientific” in dramatically different ways.

John Dewey’s progressivism, which LaBrant practiced, argued for an amorphous, classroom-based approach to what today we would call action research (each teacher is a researcher-in-practice with every different class of students). The goal here recognized that students and learning are fluid and relative.

To teach, Dewey tried to advocate, is to experiment, perpetually. What works for one student today may not work for another on that same day, in that same lesson. And what works in a lesson or unit this year may inform a future lesson or unit, but it certainly can never be reduced to a template for future teaching.

Dewey’s scientific lost, however, to the efficiency educators who sought a different type of “scientific”—one that identified a fixed prescription for what “good” teaching must look like and what “student achievement” must conform to.

Today as a teacher educator in SC, I am supposed to learn The Hulk rubric and then I am supposedly equipped to visit any teachers classroom, regardless of grade level or content, and be able to make a credible assessment if the teacher is effective or not.

This cult of pedagogy, I think, has only one compelling quality, efficiency. This is the same problem with education’s pursuit of “the” program, such as PBL. Design a program, detail the parameters of what make the program “work,” and then anyone can observe to simply verify if the program is being met.

Having taught now about an equal time—almost two decades each—as a K-12 teacher and a college professor, I am far more disturbed by the cult of pedagogy in K-12 than the laissez-faire, and even dismissive, attitude about pedagogy in higher ed.

A colleague in economics once confessed to me that he held conservative ideologies in economics and liberal social beliefs. As a result, he had decided to function mostly as a Democrat because, he believed, it was easier to teach Democrats better economics than to make Republican “give a damn” about human suffering.

I find this fits the false dichotomy I have examined here. I worry that we have two problems in teaching and learning—fostering expertise in “generalist” teachers (K-12) and fostering a greater understanding of and respect for pedagogy in experts (higher education). I suspect the latter is easier.

LaBrant ended her unpacking of the project method with a key element of how “scientific” can work in education. Science at its best requires that we define problems, generate evidence, and then conform the solutions to the problems.

The project method, LaBrant noted, was missing an obvious solution as educators lamented students either not reading or lacking reading ability:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

Our rubrics and programs are the wrong goals, the wrong solutions, even as we occasionally recognize the problems of needing “good” teachers in order to increase student achievement.

Neither pedagogy nor expertise is itself the solution, but a complex understand of how both of these work together helps us seek the best possible pursuit of science and avoid the monster we currently embrace.